The History of Prehistoric Movies

10,000 B.C.,which opens this week, is only the latest in a line of films that stretches all the way back to ONE MILLIONS YEARS, B.C. – and beyond. Hollywood has long had a fascination for portraying primitive life as it might have been lived before the invention of modern technology, but more often than not these films are outright fantasies with at best a passing interest in scientific accuracy. Most notably, the desire to see cave men confronting dinosaurs is usually too much to resist – even though the last dinosaur died out over 50-million years before the first primitive men were born.

The appeal of glamour is also not to be discounted: depictions of life before the invention of the toothbrush seldom show neanderthal men and women walking around with rotting teeth in their mouths, and you can bet that, despite their loin clothes and fur bikinis, early examples of homo erectus inevitably have perfect skin and well coiffed hair; look closely and you may even note a trace of eye liner on the leading ladies. And when you stop and think about it, can you really blame Hollywood? After all, remove the dinosaurs and the babes in clam-shell bikinis, and all you’re left with is a bunch of hairy ape-men grunting around the fire for 90 minutes – and who wants to watch that? To be fair, there are one or two worthy exceptions to this rule, which you will find as we take you on a tour of prehistory…

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Buster Keaton (left) in THREE AGES
Three Ages

THREE AGES (1923). Silent comedian Buster Keaton’s first feature film steals the structure of D.W. Griffith’s INTOLERANCE, telling three stories set in three different eras. In each of them, Keaton stars as the put-upon hero who must win the love of a woman against all odds. One sequence, set in prehistoric times, has Keaton competing with a bigger, stronger caveman rival for the lady’s affections. There is also an amusing, if crude, early special effects shot that depicts the character riding on the head of a brontosaurus. The story goes that Keaton chose the episodic structure so that, if the feature film failed, it could be cut into three short subjects. He needn’t have worried. THREE AGES is a gem of silent comedy, still worth seeing today.

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Victor Mature and Carol Landis confront a magnified lizard meant to be a dinosaur.
One Million, B.C.

ONE MILLION B.C.(1940). The first major trip down memory lane to the distant, distant past establishes many of the conventions that would persist throughout these films for decades to come; most notably, we see that cave men looked pretty much like their modern counterparts. However, ONE MILLION B.C. does something that its descendants did not bother to do: it accounts for the modern appearance by framing the story with a modern day prologue, in which an archaeologist interprets some cave drawings for the benefit of a young couple (Victor Mature and Carol Landis); not knowing what the characters in his story really looked like, he suggests that his audience imagines themselves in the roles. Their prehistoric adventures involve lizards and baby alligators optically magnified to suggest battling dinosaurs – a rather immoral bit of animal cruelty censored when the film screened in Britain (nevertheless, the sequenced was recycled as stock footage in several subsequent low-budget movies). Lon Chaney, Jr. also appears, as the leader of a cave man tribe. Ironically, considering that Keaton’s THREE AGES was a spoof of INTOLERANCE, producer-director D.W. Griffith had a hand in this production, although he eventually stepped aside and had his name removed from the credits.

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PREHISTORIC WOMEN (1953). An obscure, low-budget entry, apparently filmed in the “wilds” of El Monte, about some stone-age women who decide they hate men but must keep a few around for procreational purposes. One of the men discovers fire, which he uses to defeat some prehistoric beast, proving that men really should be the ones running the show. 4 million years of male patriarchy, sexism, and spousal abuse follow.

TEENAGE CAVEMAN(1958). A young – but clearly not teen-aged – Robert Vaughn stars in the title role of this tale of primitive life. Despite his animal fur clothing, Vaughn sports a very modern haircut, but the surprise ending sort accounts for that. We don’t want to spoil it for you, but once you’ve seen the ending, you realize that this film doesn’t really belong in a list of “prehistoric” movies.

Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion dinosaurs battle it out.
One Million Years, B.C.

ONE MILLION YEARS, B.C.(1966). This remake of ONE MILLION B.C. is probably the apex of achievement for this kind of film, thanks to the unique convergence of two profoundly entertaining fantasy elements: Raquel Welch in a fur bikini and stop-motion dinosaurs animated by Ray Harryhausen. For young boys around the world, both seemed equally fascinating and unattainable, yet here were their dreams, displayed on the movie screens bigger than life. Suddenly, the unreal became real, at least for an hour-and-a-half. The anthropology here is rather ridiculous: Raquel hails for an advanced tribe of blond-haired, blue-eyed people, who have developed something resembling a culture (not to mention skin and hair care products, judging from their good looks). She hooks up with John Richardson, whose tribe of dark-haired swarthy types are obviously several rungs down the evolutionary ladder. As absurd as it it, it hardly matter, not when you can count on one of Harryhausen’s dinosaurs to intrude at regular intervals, rather like a string of vaudeville entertainers, each of whom gets a few minutes on stage before being ushered off to make room for the next. Highlights include the archetypal battle between a peaceful plant-eager and a ferocious carnivore (guess who wins?), Raquel being kidnapped by a pteranodon, and a fight between cave men and a young allosaurus who invades their village.

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WHEN WOMEN HAD TAILS (1970). This Italian film (co-written by the respected Lina Wertmuller) is apparently a sex comedy spoof of prehistoric movies. Beautiful Senta Berger stars as a cave woman who meets some orphaned cave brothers who have been living alone on an island without women all their lives. She falls for one and introduces him to the joys of sex, but when the other brothers start wondering what the couple are doing together in private, trouble starts brewing.

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WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH(1970). This follow-up to ONE MILLION YEARS, B.C. substitutes Victoria Vetri for Raquel Welch and Jim Danforth for Ray Harryhausen. Both are quite good, but neither can quite live up to the impact of their predecessors. The results are much the same as before, with another class between an advanced, blond-haired tribe and a retro bunch of dark-haired troglodytes. Aclaimed science fiction author J.G. Ballard, who wrote the original treatment, later said, “I’m very proud that my first screen credit was for what is, without doubt, the worst film ever made.” (Apparently, Ballard never saw PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE.) Whatever the short-comings, Vetri (former Playboy Playmate of the Year) looks great, and her interaction with mommy dinosaur and its baby is loads of highly improbably fun: she takes shelter inside and egg shell and ends up adopted into the family!

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CREATURES THE WORLD FORGOT(1971). Hammer films, the company behind ONE MILLION YEARS, B.C. and WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH, tries one more time with this flick, but they forgot one thing: the dinosaurs! All you get is a snake. Oh well, Julie Ege make a pretty cave girl, but she is not striking enough to pose a threat to Welch or Vetri.

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QUEST FOR FIRE (1981). A rare attempt to portray a scientifically accurate view of primitive mankind, this film avoids the obvious mistakes (such as dinosaurs co-existing with humans), but the science is still a bit off (the screenplay was based on an outdated book). The story has a tribe losing its sacred flame when it is attacked by a rival group of savages. A trio heads out to recapture the fire. Along the way they encounter a more advanced tribe that has actually learned the secret of making fire (as opposed to just preserving a flame that started naturally). Reduced to its bare bones, the plot is not that different from ONE MLLION YEARS, B.C., but the grungy production values make it all seem much more believable.

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CAVEMAN(1981). The lovable Ringo Starr plays the title role in this spoof of prehistoric movies, featuring comic stop-motion dinosaur effects by Dave Allen. The jokes are not great, but the whole thing is so light-hearted and good-natured that it hardly matters. Despite the comic tone, the special effects are very impressive – as technically polished as anything in a serious movie. The highlight has to be the T-Rex; played for laughs here, the predator is decidedly not fearsome, especially when he gets stoned on a mouthful of berries from a very special bush.

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CAVEGIRL (1985). A low-budget spoof in which a high school nerd on a field trip finds himself transported back in time, where he falls in love with the titular character.

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CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR(1986). Adapted by John Sayles from a book by Jean M. Auel, this film is another attempt, a la QUEST FOR FIRE, to take a serious approach to the depiction of prehistoric life. Still, with Daryl Hannah in the lead, the film’s depiction of its primitive leading lady is inevitably more beautiful than the real thing.

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THE FLINTSTONES (1994). The long-running TV cartoon becomes a live-action feature film. The joke here, as on television, is that everything in the past exactly parallels the present, just with stones, rocks, and dinosaurs in place of electricity, hydraulics, and pets. Followed by a less successful sequel, VIVA ROCK VEGAS in 2000.

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DINOSAUR VALLEY GIRLS (1996). An ultra-low-budget comedy about a modern man who gets sucked into the past where he helps out a tribe of women in fur bikinis. There are a handful of special effects shots, including some crude stop-motion and some magnified lizards, but mostly the film tries to sustain itself on the running joke that these women are the prehistoric equivalent of Valley Girls (as immortalized in the song by Frank Zappa). The big joke is that their crude grunting language includes syllables that sound suspiciously similar to “For sure.”

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ICE AGE (2002). This computer-animated comedy about life in the titular ice age focuses on an unlikely team of wild animals (mammoth, sabre-toothed tiger, etc). It’s all good fun (especially Scrat, the squirrel-rat forever chasing down an acorn), and in a way it’s no more impossible than DINOSAUR VALLEY GIRL. If anything, the glimpse we get of early humans – a nomadic tribe of hunters – is probably more accurate. Followed by ICE AGE: THE MELTDOWN in 2006.

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